India under the leadership of Narendra Modi may be able to ease the symbolic tension between China and Japan, and also rise quickly to join them to co-lead a new age of politico-economic vicissitude in East-to-South Asia in the wake of the diminishing influence from the United States.
Geo-economics is the foundation of this emerging India+China+Japan (I+C+J) power structure. India is at the mid-way of the southern Silk Road — the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, one of China’s ambitious mega Silk Road projects to upgrade its Eurasia logistics. The Indian Ocean is also at the middle of the maritime Silk Route which has the potential to stretch from Dalian in northeastern China to Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, about half of the globe diameter. For a state with 1.26 billion population (which will outnumber China’s 1.35 billion very soon) to thrive, Modi who has hands-on co-operation experience with China for steering economic growth in Gujarat knows that India must reach out to foster export, including the valuable human resources such as the expertise in software programming. If and only if he has brought home plenteous growths can he overpower the sectarian and regional challenges at home so as to launch all sorts of socio-political reforms. Modi will make the best use of this geo advantage to facilitate India’s international trades within and outside Asia.
Equipped with 120 nuclear heads and three aircraft carriers to safeguard the security of the Indian Ocean, India is a heavy weight power in South Asia. Despite its military might, however, in East Asia, India is not threatening in any way and appears to be impartial between China and Japan. India’s neutrality and presence could play a positive role to mediate any possible tension between the two leading giants, thus bringing forward a triple-win situation. If China’s export-led and infrastructure-backed economic growth model is going to be duplicated in India successfully in the coming two decades, India as a huge market for cranes, electricity grids, infrastructure knowhow and finally all sorts of consumer goods will transform itself into an influential player in East-to-South Asia on all fronts.
India’s proactive engagement into East Asia has been salient. In as early as 2007, a study group was agreed among the states to establish an ASEAN + 6 Free Trade Area (10 ASEAN members plus India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand). The economic ministers of these 16 states met in Brunei August 2013 to confirm their serious intention in finalizing this Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by 2015, a concept of free trade zone from Indian Ocean to the West Pacific covering 3.35 billion people and 27% of global GDP [Note 1]. Whether this RCEP can be cemented will partly depend on New Delhi’s ability (and also Modi’s charisma) to turn the East Asian nations into a phalanx to cope with economic ups and downs. Another I+C+J co-operation can be noted from the establishment of the Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) in 2012 among China, India, Japan and South Korea to co-ordinate navy escort for deterring pirates’ attacks on commercial vessels, [Note 2] . In the private sector, Tata Group is one of the pioneers to promote business synergy for these three countries by manufacturing Land Rover cars with Chery in China and providing 3G telecommunication services in hand with Docomo.
In less than three weeks after Modi’s inauguration, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi rushed to New Delhi to tell him: “Through years of negotiation, we have come to an agreement on the basics of a boundary agreement, and we are prepared to reach a final settlement” [Note 3] . Nowadays, it is simple common sense that what government leaders seek for is eminence while entry into war can be enormity. By the time Modi has finally hammered a deal to end the decades-long India border row with China, it will become an unprecedented show case for all other nations to realize that immense common commercial interests can really solve territorial disputes.
Despite continual provocations by bellicose politicians and jingoistic analysts since Shinzo Abe came back to power in 2012, the two competing East Asian nations have actually never stopped holding bilateral semi-official talks. From the 2013 meeting between Japanese business leaders led by Fujio Cho of Toyota and the Chinese Commerce Minister, to Beijing’s warm welcome for the incumbent Tokyo governor Yoichi Masuzoe in April 2014, and then the friendly discussion in May between Masahiko Komura (vice-president of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party) and Zhang Dejiang (the third ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee and the chairman of the National People’s Congress) [Note 4], low profile but pragmatic communication between China and Japan has been carried on persistently.
Knowing that it will never be easy for the White House to garner sufficient support from the general public to send American soldiers to die for several uninhabited islands in Asia, indicating that a superpower shift is inevitable, both China and Japan are sagaciously making use of the islands in dispute as the excuse to compete for the new game setter status of the region. With reference to the “India-China agreement”, if could be historically achieved, Tokyo and Beijing would eventually work out a compromise diplomatically to set the new “rules of Asian game” for the distribution of political powers and financial interests, and then an agreement for settling the spat over the islands. If making concession is necessary, to better serve Japan’s national interests, Tokyo would probably do it for securing a deal with Beijing and New Delhi rather than with Washington. That is perhaps why Obama’s April visit could not yield a trade pact home [Note 5], even though he pledged the inclusion of the disputed islands into the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty under Article 5.
All these developments have laid down a solid framework for the rise of the new I+C+J power structure. Without the relatively complicated relation between the Christians and Muslims, the atheist Chinese and Japanese who are culturally compatible with the Hindu Indians will not hesitate to seize the opportunity to collaborate so as to set their own rules of a new multi-polar politico-economic game in Asia.
[Note 1] EastAsia Forum, “ASEAN+6 as a step towards an Asian Economic Community”, 15 May 2009. http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2009/05/15/asean6-as-a-step-towards-an-asian-economic-community/
The Nation, “Economic ministers agree to establish Asean+6 FTA by 2015”, 23 Aug 2013.
[Note 2] Euraasia Review, “The Maritime Silk Route and the Chinese Charm Offensive”, 18 Feb 2014.
[Note 3] Bloomberg, “China Prepared to Settle India Border Dispute, Wang Says”, 10 June 2014.
[Note 4] The Japan News, “Biz leaders make strides in China”, 19 Nov 2013.
SCMP, “Warm welcome for Tokyo governor may help ties, 26 Apr 2014.
SCMP, “ Japanese Team meets Top Party Official”, 6 May 2014.
[Note 5] CNN, “Obama fails to secure breakthrough in Japan trade talks”, 24 Apr 2014
Keith K C Hui is a HK-based commentator on China and international politics and the author of “Helmsman Ruler: China’s Pragmatic Version of Plato’s Ideal Political Succession System in The Republic.”